On March 22nd, I found myself stranded in Brussels on one of the worst days in the nation’s recent history. I was part of a 25-strong group of women who have been participating in the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme, an eight month long journey of political education for women who are either already involved in political life or are planning to be involved in some way, big or small. The rationale behind the visit to the EU that day was to help the participants understand the workings of the EU. For me, it felt like a brilliant opportunity – my knowledge of the UK system of government is patchy, but my EU knowledge is almost non-existent and there is only so long one can go on pretending to know what people are talking about in certain circles, especially in light of the forthcoming referendum.
After a fitful night’s sleep (the result of unfamiliar beds and an aching awareness of the early start expected the next morning), we arrived at the Visitors Centre at the European Parliament building at 9.10am, ushered in by worried-looking officials. At this point, I hadn’t heard there had been explosions at Zaventem. But soon enough, I came to learn of the hellish events not far from us. The official meeting us said we were lucky – the first group to arrive – no other groups were being allowed in, as a safety precaution. It was only when we sat in our first conference room that I switched my mobile data back on and read that 500m away, two stops from where I had exited the Metro, an explosion had been heard. I then learned, as the next hour descended into a melee of sending texts home to loved ones to assure them we were safe. All transport had been stopped. Eurostar was suspended. Getting home seemed a distant prospect. We had been due to travel that evening. I was expected back at work the next day. I had double Year 11.
The rest of the day seems hazy now. We tried to continue as per the original schedule; some speakers had not arrived so there were adjustments. But we did hear from from some brilliant speakers and I still learned enormous amounts about the function of the EU, the role of the MEP, the battles and frustrations and indeed, small victories, in working across party lines. “We talk until we reach a consensus,” said one MEP. It felt like a grown-up version of parliament, where the theatrics and posturing of Westminster were very much absent.
On finally being allowed to exit the parliament building, our group was confronted with the sight of armed guards, bomb disposal units scanning cars and that strange quiet that I remember from London after the 7th July bombings. There were very few people as we made a 45 minute journey back to the hotel on foot, to collect our luggage and find a way home.
It was enough time, as we walked, to consider what I was learning outside of what had been planned for us that day. I am a teacher. I had felt guilty being away from my students until that point, but now the guilt was tinged with a growing understanding that to make change happen in society, more teachers needed to engage with political systems.
And it occurred to me that very first thing that needs to change is the idea that teachers shouldn’t talk about politics. I absolutely understand the reasons why teachers are in a precarious position if they do. I am not particularly fond of the idea that Far Right views could creep into the classroom. But by avoiding political conversations, or never providing a platform to discuss politics (within reason), we risk a far more problematic scenario. We end up with children who grow up never hearing educated people talking openly about political standpoints, in a safe and balanced space.
Even in saying this I aware of the current government’s stance on politics in education. Whether knowingly or otherwise, citizenship education is being squeezed into the dark corners of the classroom, wedged among the textbooks for courses that don’t run anymore because money is tight. I asked a question during a panel session while were locked in the Parliament building. “In light of the events today, it has never been more clear that there is a need for citizenship education in EU countries. It is not just about knowledge – or defining Fundamental British Values, but promoting an understanding of engagement with political systems. With the narrowing of curricula in the UK, how do we ensure that citizenship education ands political engagement stays on the agenda?”
No one had a definitive answer. Underneath the answers about where resources could be found within the EU, I heard a resounding ‘it’s not on the agenda and it won’t be until the government say it is a priority’.
The unfortunate effect of the focus on EBacc subjects is a short-sighted narrowing of the curriculum which has seen – as one of my fellow Fabian women pointed out – the removal of A-Level subjects like World Development, Citizenship Studies, Humanities, Communication and Culture, Anthropology and Critical Thinking. To compound this worrying movement towards a narrow curriculum that does not include dedicated time and space to discuss what it means to be a citizen in this nation is the slashing of school budgets. Ask a leader of an inner-city comprehensive or academy how they will deal with cuts to funding, the raising of pension and national insurance contributions, the changes to money for students with additional needs and the impact of the funding formula – and I imagine the answers will be fairly similar. Cut subjects where take up is low, reduce staff numbers, provide an austerity education. Where does citizenship and political engagement sit in this? It is the crust of the bread, dear readers, and it will be cut off.
So if we cannot find ways to to teach it, we have to be it. Teachers are in an ideal position to be role models for political discussion, to present and curate ideas, to challenge misconceptions and to develop enquiring political minds. We are in an ideal place to open doors for students to engage students in the political process – or even just to shine a light on the door handle. The fact is, we may not define as being political but we are, with our consent or otherwise. And we do need to be specific in our work. If guidance is given that schools need to promote ‘fundamental British values’ – I want definitive time to do that. Although, I am more than aware that British values are vague, a working awareness of how to effect change is not.
A step further might also be required. What if our students saw us, the teachers, stepping into positions of political responsibility? What if they saw us trying, at the very least? Whatever your political persuasion, maybe consider this. Political leadership is not that far removed from running a school. And of course, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, we can’t complain about government changes to the education system when there aren’t enough teachers stepping into positions of responsibility at a local, national and EU level. What if out students saw us as beings who don’t just know, but as people who do?
I’ve learned in all of this that politics is not a dirty word. By engaging with the Fabian women, I have been empowered and elevated by knowledge about the internal workings of Westminster and the EU. I have felt less of a victim and more aware of how I can step up to change things. At the very least, I have been learning how to read Education Law – to know why mass academisation might affect the most vulnerable in our society. I haven’t decided yet whether political office is for me, but I have learned about how change can only happen if you are there making yourself heard.
What we cannot ignore is the increasing marginalisation of young people, from all walks of life, who do not feel empowered to change their circumstances and their daily experiences through democratic means. While we educate for knowledge, we must show that there are other ways of changing the society we live in and that means demystifying for ourselves first.
I left Brussels that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who had felt an uncomfortable proximity, but had not experienced the trauma of being involved in the actual atrocities. I came home and I knew I had to write this. Talk about politics with your students. Engage in political activity where you can to show that it is for everyone. Be the democracy you want to live in.